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New York Giants 2020 NFL Draft Preview: Linebackers
Format includes a quick position overview, my grading scale and what the number mean, the summary and final grade from my final report on my top 15, a quick additional note on the player, and my ranks 16-25 with grades only.
*I AM NOT DOING NFL COMPARISONS
QUICK POSITION OVERVIEW
Keep in mind I have an “EDGE” position preview coming up next week, so I may not go into some of those linebackers in this preview. I am mainly talking about the off-ball guys who primarily play between the tackles. Depending on what NYG uses as their base personnel, we are likely looking at the newly signed Blake Martinez and second year kid Ryan Connelly, who is coming off a torn ACL after raising some eyebrows in 4 games. Neither of them are worth getting overly excited about, but that doesn’t mean the position is a weak point, not at all. In fact, especially if Connelly recovers well, the two should provide really good run defense between the tackles and to the sidelines.
The question here is two-fold. Will they be exposed in the passing game? Is there enough depth and intra-roster competition? David Mayo will be back to provide both and while we can’t look down on his performance in 2019, he is best suited for the backup role. Josiah Tauaefa looks to be a solid special teamer and backup, maybe similar to what they had in Chase Blackburn and Calvin Munson in the past. I’m not sure I see Chris Peace or Nate Harvey sticking to a 53 man roster. I think the hole they have here is coverage, as none of the above mentioned guys can hang with quality tight ends or pass catching backs. It’s been an issue for years and there isn’t a current solution on the roster.
90+ All Pro Projection
85+: Pro Bowl Projection
81-84: 1st rounder – should be able to play right away
79-80: 2nd rounder – Should be able to rotate right away – Year 2 starter
77-78: 3rd rounder – Should be able to rotate by end of rookie year – Year 2/3 starter
74-76: Early Day 3 – Special Teams – Future backup/possible starter
71-73: Mid Day 3 – Special Teams – Future backup / gamble starter
68-70: Late Day 3 – Back end of roster / Practice Squad / Development guy
65-67: Preferred UDFA
60-64: Undrafted FA
TOP 15 GRADES AND ANALYSIS
*Zack Baun, Terrell Lewis, Azur Kamara, Carter Coughlin are all graded in EDGE group
- Isaiah Simmons / Clemson / 6’4 – 238
Summary: Fourth year junior entry and two year starter from Olathe, Kansas. After an accomplished high school football and long jump career, Simmons redshirted his first year on campus at Clemson. When he finally got on the field in 2017, his upside jumped off the screen and the coaches knew they had a budding star who couldn’t be kept to one position. They moved him around a lot, seeing snaps at linebacker, nickel corner, safety, and edge rusher. It resulted in two straight years of production across the board, leading the team in tackles in 2018 and 2019 respectively in addition to 25.5 TFL and 9.5 sacks. Simmons also intercepted 4 passes, broke up 13 others, and forced 4 fumbles over that span. Simply put, he is a defensive playmaker who will wear several hats for a defense if schemed properly. He is a very non-traditional player, thus putting him into a traditional role would be a massive mistake. Simmons is the player you scheme around, not the other way around.
*I have done more research and re-watching of tape on Simmons than any non-QB I have ever scouted. No, not because I wasn’t sure of him being elite or close to elite, but because he has played in countless roles against countless style-offenses. He plays to a sub 4.4 (which he ran at the combine), his stats are NOT inflated, and what really puts me over the hill on him are the reports I got on his character and intelligence. If you are going to gamble on an athlete at the top of the draft, make sure the intangibles are there. Simmons’ role within this defense is unknown to me – that is above my pay grade.
Do I think it can work? Absolutely. Do I think this kid is going to make plays on a defense that doesn’t have a playmaker? Absolutely. Do I think this kid can cover tight ends, spy the most athletic quarterbacks, and rush the passer? Absolutely. You just have to make sure you aren’t keeping him in one spot. As said in my summary, you need to build the scheme around him, not the other way around. If this new, motivated, young, innovation-hungry scheme is confident they can do with Simmons, pull the trigger. But one must know, he isn’t instinctive or stout against the run. He flashes power on the move but he won’t handle NFL linemen and blocking tight ends well. Put him in the wrong role, he is a day 2 kind of player.
- Kenneth Murray / Oklahoma / 6’3 – 241
Summary: Junior entry. Three year starter from Missouri City, Texas. Murray burst onto the scene in 2017, winning the Big 12 Freshman Defensive Player of the Year Award. He was a part of the All-Big 12 team all three years and ended his career as an All American. He started all 42 games of that career and has been the heartbeat to the defense. Murray has been touted for both his leadership and play by coaches and opponents alike. He is the kind of player who any team can stick into the middle of their defense and know they have a true three down player who will make others around him better. Murray has the physical tools and mental acuity to be a star in the middle.
*It is possible, that if it weren’t for Simmons, Murray would be in the discussion for the 4th overall pick in my eyes. I don’t think he would end up being my guy, but this is the first LB I have really wanted to compare to Patrick Willis or Luke Kuechly. Everything about this kid is what the modern inside linebacker needs. Speed, burst, power, range in coverage, and true leadership. I was pretty high on Devin Bush and Devin White last year, both of which had good rookie years. Murray is better. There are a couple medical red flags that need to be looked into further.
- Logan Wilson / Wyoming / 6’2 – 241
Summary: Fifth year senior from Casper, Wyoming. He arrived at Wyoming as a 185 pound defensive back. After his redshirt year, Wilson moved to linebacker and earned the Mountain West Freshman of the Year Award. He was a three time All Mountain West honoree and finished his career as an All American. The high school track standout blends the new and old age linebacker into one package. He has the NFL body but can move like a safety. His strengths are on display when he is in space pursuing the action and covering tight ends and backs. He does struggle mightily when taking on blocks, but he is entering the league at the right time as cover linebackers are in high demand and Wilson brings that to the table without giving up too much against the run.
*10 years ago we would have labeled this kid as a linebacker who wasn’t stout enough. To be real, stoutness is less of a factor than it has ever been and the ability to run, chase, and cover are more important. Wilson, with good size, moves really well and was really productive. Smart kid, will start early in his career. Can play multiple spots.
- Patrick Queen / LSU / 6’0 – 229
Summary: Junior entry. Two year starter from Ventress, Louisiana. Over the course of his final two years on campus, Queen started just over a full season’s worth of games. By the end of LSU’s championship run he was arguably the top defensive player on the team. He evolved into a weapon who was all over the field on every down. The NFL’s desire for speed and coverage ability will make Queen a sought after commodity, as his tools in space are near the elite level. He is still growing and evolving as an interior run defender and there are mental lapses that show up from time to time, but this is the kind of linebacker who every team wants now. High upside player.
*I have Queen as a late first round talent as you can see but I can confirm that many don’t see a round 1 guy. As good as he looks at times, the two things NFL coaches and scouts won’t like are the lack of size (especially his short arms) and the fact he was a 1 year starter. And to build off that, he wasn’t the starter at the beginning of the season. He only got in there when he did because Michael Divinity got in some off-field trouble that led to a suspension.
- Akeem Davis-Gaither / Appalachian State / 6’2 – 224
Summary: Fifth year senior from Thomasville, North Carolina. Two year starter. Finished 2018 off with a 2nd Team All Sun Belt honor before really taking off as a senior. 2019 Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year. Davis-Gaither was a team captain and obvious leader of the defense that set the tone each and every week. His speed and burst were just too much to handle for his opponents and it was able to impact the game in several ways. He lined up as an edge rusher and showed plus-blitzing ability, he lined up as an inside run defender and was able to move through traffic well enough, and he lined in space as an effective cover linebacker. He won’t be a schematic fit for several teams but a defense that wants to add speed and versatility but can also keep him out of downhill run stuffing responsibilities will have a high outlook on him.
*I see some Telvin Smith here. Undersized, short reach, slight frame. But this dude can move at a different speed than his opponents and he will evade blockers well. Really fun player to watch but he needs to be protected. I don’t see him impact the game as a blitzer or interior run defender, but he will fly around and cover backs with ease.
- Troy Dye / Oregon / 6’3 – 231
Summary: Senior entry from Norco, California. Four year starter who led the Ducks in tackles all four seasons. Three time 2nd Team All Pac 12 defender following his Honorable Mention 2016 season. Dye finished his career near the top of the program’s all time tackles list. He has been a productive player across the board and it showed both on the stat sheet and on tape. He lined up all over the field and got to the action one way or another, proving his intelligence and athleticism. His slight frame will need work if he is going to be playing between the tackles at the next level but his ability to factor in space and potential to be a credible every down linebacker is enough to hide his deficiencies. He is a new-age linebacker who doesn’t give up too much as a thumper.
*Dye was as the top of my senior LB stack last summer. I love this kid’s game and more important, I love his consistency. You know what you’re getting week to week. Dye is another current-age linebacker who will be more effective in space than he is in traffic, but he stays plays tough between the tackles. He won’t be a star, but he will contribute on special teams right away and offer some potential as a starting weak side presence.
- Malik Harrison / Ohio State / 6’3 – 247
Summary: Senior entry from Columbus, Ohio. Two year starter who earned 1st Team All Big 10 honors in 2019, Honorable Mention in 2018. Also 3rd Team All American as a senior. Harrison has the NFL-ready size and power presence to factor right away against the run. He can handle NFL offensive lineman with his combination of man-strength and top tier length. Once in the open field, he can really get moving with long stride speed, which will be an asset against athletic tight ends. He came to Ohio State as a former high school quarterback who wanted to play wide receiver for the Buckeyes, so that is the kind of athlete we are talking about here. He could end up projecting to the strong side in a 4-3 front long term as a starter with the option of providing some middle-type roles.
*Harrison is overlooked a bit when it comes to how freaky of an athlete he is. He has some of the best triangle numbers (height + weight + speed) at the position. Remember, this kid came to Ohio State to play wide receiver! When I watched his tape, I saw a lot of rawness, indecision, and inconsistency. But when he did line things up, when he did make proper reads, he looked dominant. Harrison is a high upside, really athletic linebacker who simply needs time to sit back on the depth chart and get acclimated. If it clicks, watch out. Really nice fit for NYG’s situation if they can find a way to get their hands on him round 3 or 4.
- Jordyn Brooks / Texas Tech / 6’0 – 240
Summary: Senior entry from Houston, Texas. Four-year starter who led Texas Tech in tackles three of those years. Honorable Mention All Big 12 in 2016, 2017, and 2018 respectively before going onto being named 1st Team All Big 12 and 2nd Team All American in 2019. Brooks is an aggressive, fast, attacking downhill defender who made 20 tackles for loss as a senior. That number was a tad inflated as he was almost-always sent on blitzes, but his athletic ability and closing style make him an attractive prospect. He is quick enough to factor in coverage, he just didn’t have a ton of experience in that role. Brooks has the ability to start in the NFL but at the very least will be a special teams contributor and plus-run defender.
*Brooks is going to be a gamble, I think some teams won’t even look at him. He has very little experience in coverage, he was purely a downhill guy. But there are still plenty of schemes that need the thumper inside and that he is. However he also brings 4.6 speed to the table, a nasty, physical guy. He screams Ravens to me. And I always love how their linebackers perform and help them win games.
- Anfernee Jennings / Alabama / 6’2 – 256
Summary: Fifth year senior from Dadeville, Alabama. Three year starter. 1st Team All SEC in 2019. Jennings has been a mainstay on the Tide’s defense for three seasons. He is one of the more versatile players in the class, as he has seen plenty of experience as an edge rusher and inside linebacker. He will likely make a full time move to middle as a two down thumper between the tackles who can add something as a pass rusher on 3rd down. He lacks standout physical traits, most notably when it comes to movement, but he is instinctive and tough. Smart players who have produced the way he has against the highest level of competition find a way on the field at the next level.
*Some are leaving an EDGE position on him, which is fine I guess. But we saw him move to off-ball linebacker a lot in 2019 and he spent the majority of Senior Bowl week there too. Jennings is really smart and really physical, I could see NE being all over this kid draft weekend early day 3. 25+ TFL and 13+ sacks over the past two years coming from Alabama? Can play inside as a thumper, can provide quality pass rush on 3rd down? Sign me up.
- Willie Gay Jr. / Mississippi State / 6’1 – 243
Summary: Junior entry from Starkville, Mississippi. Two year starter but only started 11 games total over his career. Missed a significant amount of time in 2019 because of academics. Gay was a explosive rushing quarterback in high school and it is easy to notice just how fast he can play on the defensive side. He is an aggressive downhill force who will make the offense adjust to him. He is not someone who a ball carrier wants to meet in space, as the power Gay brings upon force when he has a head start is as physical as it gets. There will need to be extra screening in regard to his off field habits, but he is a potential game changer if everything checks out and he learns the game a bit more.
*If the Giants are looking to take a risk at LB on day 3, this is the guy to go after. I had glowing game notes on Gay Jr and the comparison of Devin Bush came up multiple times. Short but stout, plus length for his frame, top-shelf speed. There is no denying that NYG needs more juice, more speed at the second level. Gay Jr blew the combine up, he is in the same tier athletically speaking as Simmons. He is as violent a player as you will find. There are a couple character red flags, however, and he only has 11 career starts. If NYG wants to turn their defense around, they are going to have to take a couple chances. This would be taking a chance but I feel good about it in round 4 or 5.
- Dante Olson / Montana / 6’2 – 237
Summary: Fifth year senior from Medford, Oregon. Two year starter who certainly made the most of those two years. Set, and the re-set, the all time single season record for tackles in program history. A two time FCS All American and the recipient of the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year Award. Buck Buchanan Award winner finalist in 2018 and 2019 respectively, given to the top defensive player of the year in FCS. Olson is the son of a coach with really good speed and a finisher’s mentality. He runs around like he’s on fire and with the demands of today’s linebacker in the pros, he could be a sneaky-good fit. He lacks some important agility-based movement skills but he can be molded into a quality player in time. At the very least, he will be a stud-special teamer.
*Olson won’t impress anybody with his tools, but they are good enough and he has the combination of intelligence and toughness on the field to factor. He would be a reliable backup and quality special teamer. My question, in relation to the Giants, would center around how “multiple” he can be. I see a weak side / middle guy only. Every team has a linebacker like him, but I can see why some would rather go for someone faster. I saw him at Shrine and was impressed, I am keeping him near the top of this cluster of mid to late day 3 linebackers.
- Shaquille Quarterman / Miami / 6’1 – 234
Summary: Senior entry from Orange Park, Florida. Four year starter who finished All-ACC every season, including the 1st Team honor in both 2018 and 2019. Quarterman evolved into the Alpha Male of the Miami defense over his final two years, producing at a high level against both the run and pass. He has the kind of intelligence and on-field IQ that every good linebacker possesses and he knows how to finish. While he is a bit of a throwback who may currently struggle to play in space against the passing game, he still has the potential and even likelihood to make an impact. He shows stiffness but if a scheme can hide that a bit, he will help a defense much more than hurt it. He will be in the league for a long time and likely start at some point.
*A lot of people were juiced up about this kid before and during his freshman season. I feel like he’s been at Miami for a decade. 52 starts, a ton of tackles, multiple schemes, and a true leader of the group. I got to speak with him down at St. Pete during Shrine week and came away really impressed. He won’t add a lot of athleticism to the group though, he isn’t that big, and he may be a 2-down guy. The physical upside isn’t good enough for me to use anything more than a 3rd day pick here.
- Tanner Muse / Clemson / 6’2 – 227
Summary: Fifth year senior entry from Belmont, North Carolina. Three year starter who earned 3rd Team All ACC honors in 2018, 1st Team in 2019. Also a 3rd Team All American as a senior. Muse looks too tight to stay at safety, as his hips and feet just don’t move well enough to be trusted in coverage against pro receivers. However he shows potential as a cover linebacker who can handle the running game from the weak side. The winner of the Special Teams Player of the Year Award at Clemson in 2016, Muse brings the kind of straight line speed and power-impact to make an impact in that department at the next level and his role on defense will need to be specific but he has proven to be a factor against the pass if he is protected.
*I have no issues with those who label Muse a late day 2 pick. He has some old school, blue collar in him but don’t look past the fact he is incredibly fast and explosive. Ohio State running back JK Dobbins out-ran Isaiah Simmons in space during the CFB playoffs, Muse caught him from behind. Then he went to the combine and ran a 4.41. Muse is too tight to play safety in my eyes, but he is more than physical enough for linebacker duty and his coverage for the position would be considered a plus. I have this mid to late day 3 grade here, but I’ll say this, his versatility, intelligence, and physical nature could be an exact fit for what NYG plans to do on defense. Look for this kid draft weekend.
- Davion Taylor / Colorado / 6’1 – 228
Summary: Senior entry from Magnolia, Mississippi. Two year starter who spent two seasons in junior college prior to transferring to Colorado in 2018. Finished with Honorable Mention All Pac 12 honors as a senior. Also an accomplished sprinter for the Colorado track team. Taylor has as interesting a background as anyone in the class. Because of religious beliefs, he was not allowed to play in football games Fridays or Saturdays during high school until his senior year. Thus, he was under-recruited and simply did not bank much football experience. After two impressive seasons in junior college, Colorado scooped him up and put him into the starting lineup 20 games over 2 years. Taylor had a hard time finding a permanent home in regard to position, but his speed was top shelf and he flashed playmaking ability from time to time. He is still very much considered a developmental player who is incredibly raw, but he has elite special teams potential and could mold into a quality weak side, space-happy linebacker down the road.
*One of the more unique prospects in the class considering his background and tools. Many are putting this kid into the day 2 tier because of his strength and speed. He is an excellent run and chase guy but I don’t see instincts or flow to the action. I thought he looked out of place at the Senior Bowl. While I do respect the upside here that stems from his frame and speed, he is a project.
- Jacob Phillips / LSU / 6’3 – 229
Summary: Senior entry from Nashville, Tennessee. Two year starter who finished second on the team in tackles in 2018, first in 2019. After sitting behind Devin White for two years, a future top 10 pick, Phillips took over the job in the middle of the Tigers defense and excelled. He was a 5-star recruit coming out of high school and flashed over his two seasons. The straight line speed, attractive frame, and sure tackling is sure to catch the eyes of defensive coaches who want to try and develop a player for a year or two. He shows weaknesses in coverage but he physical upside is there to warrant the idea he could improve enough in that area. He is a day three pick who has the upside of a starter, ideally in a scheme that can let him run around and chase.
*Phillips isn’t in the same tier as a some of these recent LSU linebackers, but I think he is a reliable bet to provide quality depth and special teams play. He plays smart, he works hard, he is very coachable. Don’t forget he was a 5-star recruit and even though one could argue he had an underwhelming career, he was an important piece these past two seasons. Not a good cover linebacker but he will be reliable against the run.
- Mykal Walker / Fresno State: 70
- Francis Bernard / Utah: 70
- Evan Weaver / California: 70
- Cam Brown / Penn State: 69
- Jordan Mack / Virginia: 69
- Khaleke Hudson / Michigan: 69
- Justin Strnad / Wake Forest: 69
- Michael Divinity / LSU: 69
- Michael Pinckney / Miami: 68
- Jordan Glasgow / Michigan: 68
For the record, I could talk about the possible Simmons selection for an hour straight, it is fascinating. I won’t go too deep here, as we can discuss further in the comments, but I will echo what I stated earlier. NYG can certainly go for him at #4 and I won’t say a negative thing about it. But so much of his potential, even more so than other prospects, will be based on how the team would use him. Build the scheme around him, do not try to fit him into a scheme. This coaching staff yelled from the top of the mountains that they want to be able to change their scheme week to week to exploit the opponent’s weaknesses. Simmons is quite literally the kind of player WHO can change week to week based on what the team needs, and he can do so at a high level. However, if they put him at ILB routinely, he will get crushed because his instincts are average at best and he plays high. If they put him at EDGE routinely, he will get crushed because he doesn’t have an array of rush moves and he doesn’t use his hands well in that situation. If they put him at safety routinely, he will get crushed because he is high hipped and doesn’t play more athletic than NFL receivers like he did in college.
As for the rest of the LB group, whether they draft Simmons or not, speed needs to be added. Connelly, Martinez, and Mayo can get the job done against the run but they are going to get exposed when true speed and coverage are needed. If you need to convert 3rd and 5, attack those guys and a good passing game will almost always come out on top especially on a team that lacks quality pass rushers. This draft’s LB group as a whole is a little thin after those top 7-8 guys. Because it is such a scheme-based position, NYG doesn’t have to rush here. They can be patient, wait for value (even if it is round 7), and add the athleticism there.